Of Two Minds

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

It's been a busy few weeks around here--and a busy few months before that--so I'm finally getting the chance to sit down and focus on my dissertation for the first time in months. First there was my 30th birthday weekend, when my husband had all sorts of lovely surprises planned, the best of which was a surprise visit from my best friend from grad school, Miranda, and her husband and son. T.J. had wanted to have lunch at Newk's, and when we got there Miranda and Co. were waiting for us. I was super surprised (so surprised that my first reaction was "What are you guys doing here???") because they live four hours away (and of course lived much further away when we lived in PA), and we don't get to see them very often.  We had a nice weekend with them, and I'm so happy they were our first house guests!

Then the next week I drove down to my parents' for a couple days. I hadn't seen them since December and my brother was visiting from Orlando, so I squeezed the visit into my schedule because he doesn't make it home often. It was good to see all of my family (parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, siblings), and to get to spend a little time with my cousins, even if it was just hanging out around the house and driving down to Destin for dinner.

Then this past week I attended the national American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference in Cleveland, where I had a great time rooming with my friend Cassie and meeting lots of people in the field. Cassie and I went to the member reception on Thursday, which was held in the beautiful glass atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art, had breakfast with a prospective AU PhD student Friday morning, and then Friday night went out for dinner and drinks at an Irish pub with a big group of grad students (and I got to have my first draft Strongbow since London!). In between glasses of wine, mugs of chai latte, and pints of Strongbow, we managed to make it to a few panels, mostly on travel or pedagogy, and Cassie presented on performances of drunkenness on the eighteenth-century stage and I presented on teaching women's writing about India in a poster session. I'd never done a poster session before, but I worked hard on the poster and it was really well-received, with lots of people taking pictures of it and some emailing me afterward for copies of it. It was a great opportunity to network and to strengthen previous connections I'd made with other eighteenth-century scholars who work with India (we're a small bunch).

I have to admit that the conference didn't leave me feeling as inspired as some others (mainly creative writing ones) do, though. In the Chronicle, in our departments, and now even at conferences, we are constantly being reminded that academia is in crisis, that there are fewer and fewer tenure-track lines available and more and more adjuncts filling those roles, most making less than $20,000 a year. I went to pedagogy panels where well-known scholars who've been in the field dozens of years talked about the burdens of teaching additional course loads, of teaching mostly composition and core literature courses, as departments shrink and even tenure-track or tenured faculty must bear the load of increased University enrollments.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the role of the university has changed in our culture, and humanities departments have not adapted to the new consumerist mindset. Students are worried about the future the way that we all are, and they are going to be less inclined to go into majors where the job path is less defined. Civil engineering majors know exactly what kind of jobs they can apply for after earning their degrees, as do management majors, marketing majors, accounting majors, etc. English and history majors...it's a bit more vague. I don't think it's necessarily that people don't enroll in these disciplines because they will make less money than their business and engineering counterparts; I think they are worried whether or not they will be able to make any money at all, or at least a livable wage. And most departments just expect people to enroll in English, history, etc. for the love of the discipline. They aren't actively recruiting high school students the way that engineering and science programs often do, and they aren't selling and supporting the professional aspects of their discipline the way these other disciplines are. Where are the required internships, the job talks (other than about grad school and academia), the networking outside one's own discipline? Why not create more hybrid majors that unite the critical thinking skills and empathy developed in an English major with a more "practical" discipline--English/business, English/political science, English/health sciences, etc.? I know most departments have never had to think about these things and many over-burdened (and especially tenured) professors don't want to go up that road, but it might be the only path to survival. I honestly don't believe that the reason our departments are shrinking is because fewer people want to read books and talk about them; it's because more people are saying, I can do that on my own or with friends or as a minor. But how am I going to make money? And until we can answer that question for them, English will always be in crisis.

I've been thinking about all of this a lot more lately as I've been searching for a job here in Huntsville/Madison and wondering more and more often if I made the right decision to go so far down this rabbit hole. A part of me will always wonder if I should have just pursued writing instead, gotten my MFA and then gotten a job in the private sector doing something boring and mindless but that would support my writing and give me plenty of brain space leftover at the end of the day to create. It was telling when after the first panel I attended at ASECS, my most useful note was about something I could use in my novel, not in teaching or scholarship. Although later panels reminded me of why I love research and my field, that reminder was always tempered by the knowledge that it's nearly impossible to get a job just researching and teaching my areas of speciality, and that even if I did, I would be expected to focus solely on my field and not deviate into creative writing.

The dissertation has to be my priority now. I have to finish and earn my PhD. No question about that. But what comes after that is more obscure to me than ever.


Libby April 9, 2013 at 6:07 PM  

Wow, Lacy. You articulate exactly what I have been thinking. Great blog!

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